I moved to the Hill District in 1943 and my memories like the untold numbers of other persons will remain with me forever. At that period of time the Hill was a genuine melting pot, nationally recognized. There were Jews, Italians, Syrians and colored [not Black yet] and a limited number of Mexicans.
We were more than neighborly we were neighbors. We were more than friendly, we were friends and some of those friendships are life long. In the early days we lived in what we described as party walls, now they are called row houses. We lived in alleys, for example there was Ours Alley now it is named Ours Way.
There were those of us who did not have indoor facilities and there were families that consisted of nine to 22 children, but somehow we made it. The irony of those years was that not one of us perceived ourselves as being poor.
There were churches and synagogues in every block, the major differences of then and now is that those churches of yesteryear was where the members all lived in the surrounding communities. The Hill was known worldwide. Fulton and Wylie were described as the Cross Roads of the World. There were historic clubs such as the Musicians, Loendi, Washington, Bamboola and countless others. There were bars and cocktail lounges, gambling joints, red light districts where the prostitutes and pimps plied their trade. There were colored owned hotels, which were frequented by all famous colored entertainers and ball players. They were not allowed to stay in downtown hotels. The Hill was frequented by some of most famous entertainers the world produced and untold numbers lived on the Hill. To name a few: Billy Eckstein, Georgie Benson, Chuck Jackson, Lena Horne, Art Blakey, Ray Brown, Mary Lou Williams, Ahmad Jamal, Tom and Stanley Turrentine, Sam Hurt. Donald Woods had a local band called Cavaliers of Swing and the band consisted of some unbelievably talented musicians, too many to mention.
There was a level of men, who were the unofficial bankers of the lower Hill and they truly were compassionate men, who made overwhelming contributions to the community. I am unable to list all of them but there was Woogie Harris, Lee Smith, Gus Greenlee, Joe Robinson, Crip Barron and last but not least Frank Stotts. I remember an incident that Frank Stotts said, “What are you doing right now.” I replied nothing and then he said, “Take these three children to the shoe store on Centre Avenue and buy them two pairs of shoes a piece.” My response was their mother got a welfare check yesterday and drank it up, Frank responded, “I don’t recall discussing their mother. Here is the money take the kids to the shoe store,” and I did. The above mentioned persons in conjunction with many others such as Cepheus Ford were true benefactors. In the early 1950’s Renaissance I the wrecking ball and the bulldozers arrived. This was the beginning of the demise of the Hill that we knew. The Jewish residents left first, moving to Stanton Heights. The Italians, Syrians and Irish in that order moved primarily to South Hills. Those that we depended upon to represent us did not understand that something new is not automatically better than what you have. Someone coined the phrase, that “URA improvement means Negro removal.” It is true that Black residents never had physical control of the Hill properties, but there were and are intangibles that go far beyond owning. Crawford Square were vacant lots for a total of 33 years before White developers decided it was time to rebuild the Hill. How many of you remember how we had to picket, march, demonstrate before they were willing to allow Blacks to work and be contractors?
It is now 2012 and we are engaging in a very similar confrontation, but this time Blacks against Blacks may be the major problem. Art Glover, who is deceased, would say regularly, “There are three sides the right, wrong and the truth.”
It has been bought to my attention that there is a lack of cohesiveness among the residents of the Hill. One faction has stated to me the Consensus Group has the best interest of the people and that their only agenda is to serve the people. Some others who live on the Hill contend that Rep. Jake Wheatley and Pittsburgh City councilman R. Daniel Lavelle are power drunk and seek to serve their own self-interest. I am not knowledgeable enough to make a definitive statement; if I did I would be writing it. I would hope that all of us, who have a commitment to the rebirth of the Hill and are determined that the Penguins, who have deep pockets and strong political ties will not dictate to us how we are going to rebuild the Hill. We must not lose focus that together we stand, divided we fall. A true consensus is the elected officials and the consensus group being together.
Art was correct there exist the right, wrong and the truth.
Remember Kingsley Association.
(Louis “Hop” Kendrick is a weekly contributor to the Forum Page.)